WASHINGTON -- Events of the last week in Somalia and Haiti confirm that foreign policy is much more of a political problem at home for President Clinton than merely the fact that these events divert attention from the domestic agenda he has been pursuing so diligently and single-mindedly.
As with the earlier starts and stops on U.S. intervention in Bosnia, the extension of humanitarian aid in Somalia to a fuzzy concept of "nation-building," and the embarrassing resistance in Haiti to U.S. efforts to restore democratic rule, have left an image of an uncertain administration in over its head.
It is not only the president's own lack of foreign-policy experience and his seeming preference for and concentration on domestic affairs that feed that impression. Down the line in the foreign-policy hierarchy, there is no one who stands out as a foreign-affairs expert in the mold of Henry Kissinger in the Nixon years or Alexander Haig and George Shultz in the Reagan era. And while James Baker, George Bush's secretary of state, had little foreign-policy background when he took the job, he quickly established himself as a forceful and deft diplomat in support of a president with wide contacts and experience in foreign affairs.
In contrast is Clinton's secretary of state, Warren Christopher, of whom it is said he looks every inch the diplomat, but whose bland manner and style fail to convey strength. In jest, United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright earlier this year described Christopher before a Gridiron Club dinner as "almost lifelike," but that in fact is not far off the image he projects.
At the Department of Defense, rumpled former congressman Les Aspin, for all his experience in the House as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and exposure to critical questions of war and peace, also conveys uncertainty. First he was caught in the middle of the Pentagon resistance to Clinton's efforts to ban discrimination against gays in the military, and more recently bore the brunt of sharp criticism for having failed to dispatch requested additional support for embattled U.S. troops in Somalia.
The president's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, a carry-over from the Carter administration, has had little public presence beyond a recent speech in which he sought to set out a shift from the dominant Cold War approach of containment of communism to one of "enlargement" of democracy around the (( world. But Clinton himself told the United Nations pointedly that the United States, and the United Nations, would have to pick their spots from now on and could not be the world's policemen everywhere.
Until the recent retirement of Gen. Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was the strongest symbol in the administration of tough-minded experience in the realm of foreign policy. But his very public differences with Clinton over gays in the military, and what was widely perceived as his victory over the president in that disagreement, undercut any sense of strong presidential leadership.
The bottom may have been hit for the Clinton administration with the recent closed-door meeting of Christopher and Aspin on Capitol Hill to brief legislators on the Somalia situation. Republicans and Democrats alike said later they were appalled at the session, in which the two Cabinet members were said in effect to have asked the congressmen and senators what they would do, rather than offering a firm administration course of action.
Such debacles have led to Republican chidings, from Sen. John McCain of Arizona and others, of "amateur hour" at the White House on foreign policy. That's why it is critical to Clinton's presidency that he define more explicitly and effectively what his plans are in Somalia and Haiti, and why Americans risk being placed in harm's way in both places.
A poll by ABC's "Nightline" has found 62 percent disapproval for his policies in Somalia and 50 percent disapproval to 30 percent approval in Haiti.
It is not likely that a new president can be successful in his domestic agenda if the voters, and Congress, doubt he is up to the task of leading the world's remaining superpower in its dealings abroad.